Aristide Apparently Headed for Victory In Haitian Election
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Nov. 26 .. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former populist priest who became Haiti's first democratically elected leader a decade ago but has been out of power since 1996, appeared headed for an overwhelming victory in presidential elections today, frightening the country's business leaders and creating a new headache for the United States.
Voting took place mostly without incident, and few irregularities were reported after a deadly weeklong bombing campaign, which each side has blamed on the other. One homemade bomb exploded in the impoverished neighborhood of Carrefour, and there were reports that a church in the countryside that was serving as a polling station was burned.
Supporters of Aristide, who had promised "peace in the head, peace in the stomach," danced in the streets of the slums where he preached and became politically active.
Aristide was toppled by a military coup in 1991, seven months into his first administration. Despite misgivings over his years of preaching liberation theology, with its Marxist components, the United States sent 20,000 troops to Haiti to return Aristide to power in 1994. Because the Haitian constitution does not allow consecutive terms in office, he stepped down reluctantly in 1996, making way for the first democratic handover of power in Haiti's 200-year history.
But the deep class divisions that gave rise to the coup remain stubbornly in place, despite a $2.2 billion investment by the United States in police training, economic development and other pro-democracy projects. Business leaders have accused Aristide, who will enjoy a huge majority in parliament, of using his Lavalas Family party to dominate political life much as Haiti's past dictatorships did. The divide was evident in voting patterns today, with turnout very heavy in the poorest neighborhoods, while polling places in wealthier districts were almost empty. Voter turnout was estimated at 60.5 percent.
All major opposition parties boycotted the election, and international observers refused to monitor it because the government would not take steps to change election procedures after disputed legislative and local elections in May. The perceived credibility of Aristide's election will likely have significant bearing on whether international aid agencies will release to the Western Hemisphere's poorest country more than $500 million that has been bottled up for three years.
The State Department has taken a dim view of the election, saying previously that "absent meaningful action to address serious electoral deficiencies, the United States will not support the Nov. 26 presidential and legislative elections, financially or through observer missions." Washington has also said future U.S. aid will not be directed to the Aristide administration. Instead, $70 million in annual financial assistance will be channeled through private, nongovernmental organizations.
But none of that mattered today in the slums where Aristide, 47, nicknamed "the little priest" by his followers, first emerged as an opponent to the Duvalier dictatorship. They danced and chanted "Long live Aristide," packing polling places from the time they opened early this morning.
Samuel Pierre, a 28-year-old photographer voting in the sprawling northern slum Cite Soleil, said the recent bombings could not keep him from supporting Aristide. "We were hiding, but today we're not," he said.
Aristide's lifestyle has changed during the five years he has waited to return to politics. No longer a priest, he lives with his wife and two children in the wealthy northern suburb of Tabarre and seldom leaves his comfortable walled compound. He works in the nearby offices of the Aristide Foundation for Democracy, a charitable organization. No one knows how he came by his money, but few dispute that he has joined the ranks of the wealthy he railed against as a slum priest. But because of his isolation, there are few clues as to whether his leftist politics that so irritated Washington have changed. Since registering his candidacy last month, Aristide has made just one public appearance, citing security reasons. On Friday, he went to Carrefour to console the residents after a rash of bombings, including one that killed a 7-year-old girl. While the candidate remained mostly in seclusion, posters of Aristide with outstretched arms covered city walls, and airplanes dragged Aristide banners across the sky and dropped campaign leaflets.
His few campaign statements mostly opposed calls from leading opposition parties to delay the vote. President Rene Preval, Aristide's former prime minister and protege, also rejected the appeals and urged voters to go to the polls.
Leopold Berlanger, vice president of the opposition radio station Vision 2000, said the elections took place "in a terrible climate, made of political polarization, violence and absence of tolerance and corruption." He said Lavalas, whose Creole name means cleansing torrent or flood, broke up opposition rallies in the months before the election.
"It's not a real election, and since Aristide didn't have real competition, he didn't run a real campaign," said Berlanger, who is a member of a nominally independent, government-sponsored election observer commission. "If a prerequisite for the international community for aid is free elections, this isn't going to do it."
In recent days, the office of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce was abandoned for fear of violence, and Port-au-Prince shops owned by prominent Haitians closed until after the election. Marie Handal, 52, owns a fabric store that has been losing money in recent months. She said she voted in the May elections for the first time in her life, but results that gave Lavalas 10 Senate seats that should have been decided in runoffs discouraged her from voting this time.
"Everyone was deceived," Handal said. "Here they have no democracy. No one can vote, no one can talk without fear. This is dictatorship."
Since the May elections, no changes have been made in Haiti's electoral machinery. Most notably, the Provisional Electoral Council has remained entirely in the hands of Lavalas after three of its opposition-appointed members resigned. Preval filled those seats with Lavalas partisans.
Yvon Neptune, president of the Senate, said the international community should not have isolated Haiti during this period of "democratic apprenticeship."
By refusing to send election observers, Neptune said, the international community has helped the opposition destabilize Haiti at a pivotal time. He blamed opposition parties for the bombing campaign and warned that without firm government action, there could be another coup attempt against Aristide.
"They think they know best for all of us, those who have had the privilege of being educated," said Neptune, an Aristide confidant. "The truth is, they don't care about this country, and we saw that during the years of the coup. They used the opportunity to make even more money."
"A dictatorial government would not accept such things," he continued. "This government is fast becoming prisoner to its sensitivity to democratic practices. It is falling into a situation where it cannot use the law for fear of being accused of repression."
Some irregularities were apparent today at polling places around the city. Several voters were turned away from the Ecole Nationale Argentine Bellegarde, site of a 1987 election-day massacre, after poll workers could not find the numbered ballots corresponding to the voters' registration cards.
A 20-year-old student voting at a public school in Cite Soleil said he had cast three ballots for Aristide, never having been made to dip his thumb in indelible ink. He said seven of his friends did the same thing.
"I like him so much, one vote is not enough," said the student, who refused to give his name.
© 2000 The Washington Post